Mark Levinson No. 32 Reference Stereo Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers Stereo Preamps
Written by Bryan Southard   
Monday, 01 April 2002

When Mark Levinson announced they would be introducing a $16,000 preamp ($18,500 with the phono section) there was a group of long time loyalists who scurried to authorized dealers to put down deposits while other audiophiles and music enthusiasts simply shook their heads in amazement. $16,000 is a lot of money for a preamp even for the first “Reference” preamp from Mark Levinson. I’d be lying to say I wasn’t just a bit curious as to what Madrigal could do if cost was no object and with the No. 32 clearly cost isn’t the concern – performance is.

With time and dramatic changes to my music system, the need (OK you can call it a lust) for a reference preamp became evident. I arranged for a review sample and then the fun began. After unpacking, careful inspection revealed a beautifully designed and assembled product. The No. 32 looks great with its twenty first century styling and is built to tolerances I have never seen in any audio product. After examining over the No. 32 like a jeweler would the most rare of gems, I concluded that the No. 32 mechanically, is unequivocally the most impressively engineered A/V product that I’ve fondled.

Many of today’s elite preamplifiers use a two chassis design to optimize performance by removing their noisy power supplies from the sensitive audio electronics. Mark Levinson has taken a fresh approach with the No. 32 by packaging its power supplies, control circuitry, and display electronics in one enclosure, then placing the sensitive audio circuitry in another, an interesting and creative approach that makes intuitive sense. Although there are benefits in separating the power supplies alone, noise generated by the display, switches, and other devices could possibly infiltrate the audio path to some level when contained in same enclosure.

The sleek "controller" chassis contains all of the No. 32’s controls. To the left and right are sculpted, bead-blasted aluminum knobs measuring approximately an inch in diameter, controlling source selection and volume respectively. The front panel has a sparse selection of controls with a button to select recording output, one to attenuate the display intensity, a system setup menu button, balance, mute, and standby allowing you to leave the system in a pre-warmed stage, ready for listening.

The volume control on the No. 32 is engineering artistry in its own right. Its attenuator design uses 66 SMT mounted resistors per channel, providing clean control in 0.1 dB increments. This level of infinite adjustment took some time to adjust to. A couple clicks of the volume control on the remote, provided indistinguishable change. To make any real difference you need to be patient. The feel of the volume knob on the control unit is magnificent. At the center of the control chassis is a large display with red LED characters measuring approximately one-half inch in height. This display is very legible and easily viewed with capable eyes from across a large room.

The rear panel of the control chassis provides left and right DC power outputs for the separate preamp module, a DC power connector for use with the Mark Levinson No. 25 external phono stage, and the main A/C power input. It also provides control ports for Phast and other controllers, a RS-232 port for future software upgrades, communication ports, and IR trigger I/O. DC power cables in three-foot lengths to connect the two chassis’ are included.

At the heart of the control module is the No. 32’s power regeneration system. The effects of poor power are well documented and a condition that plagues absolutely every A/V system. Some homes have better power yet everyone reaps the misfortune of sharing power with neighbors and their appliances. With the No. 32, the power comes from the two power supplies, one for each channel, and then runs through a dedicated power amplifier optimized to produce a single frequency of 400 Hz. This pure sine wave is then rectified, filtered, and regulated, providing the No. 32 with clean power at a frequency that makes its electronics run profoundly more efficiently. Those familiar with power regeneration will recognize this concept as nothing new, with a number of available outboard power products that successfully employ similar technological concepts. It should be pointed out however that there is a difference between concept and implementation.

The “Preamp Module” electronics are contained in a die-cast aluminum enclosure with separate sealed compartments for the left and right channel audio electronics. The only information allowed to enter the shielded compartments is channel specific audio signals and the purified DC power. Mark Levinson uses the ultra-expensive Arlon 25N material on the No. 32’s sensitive PC boards. This material is known for its extremely uniform and low dielectric constant minimizing cross-talk and noise.

The fully balanced phono stage option for the No. 32 comes in the form of two enclosed and shielded modules that can either be ordered with your No. 32, or purchased later and installed by your local dealer. The review unit was not outfitted with the optional phono modules therefore I recommend that you audition them before purchasing this option.

The remote control for the No. 32 is built equal to the standard that the rest of the preamp. It has a good layout with large square rubber buttons, providing only essential functions thus eliminating the dreaded handful of confusion factor. My only complaint being that this solidly constructed remote, made from hefty extruded black anodized aluminum, was too heavy for my tastes. I didn’t like the balance and it never quite felt comfortable in my hand or my lap.

The Music
I wanted to cover a variety of music examples, material that I used to evaluate the No. 32 as well as music that I felt provided a solid foundation for discerning sonic differences. Occasionally we receive complaints that the music selected is not “audiophile grade” and therefore serves no purpose for evaluation. I feel quite differently. In my view, the best music to evaluate a piece of equipment is the music that you love, and those cuts that provide you the greatest emotional connection.

I found some interesting initial results from Train’s most recent, Drops of Jupiter (Sony Music) and the title track of the same name. The No. 32 provided more musical information than I have been hearing from my Sonic Frontiers Line 3 preamplifier. This didn't come as a complete surprise due to the fact that the line 3 is a tube preamplifier and the strengths of tubes are not ultimate resolution but absolute sweetness and reality. With the No. 32, Pat Monahan’s vocals were exceptionally detailed. The No. 32 revealed vocal textures, and articulated previously unheard elements like a crunch in his vocal chords. The overall sound of Monahan’s voice was more pure and liquid than I have heard before.

Next in my battery of listening tests was Cyrus Chestnut’s Earth Stories (Atlantic) and the song “Grandma’s Blues.” In this cut I focused particularly on the percussion, a simple drum set that sits atop the stage politely in the distance. Details in the cymbals were eerily defined and the position perfectly distinguishable. I honestly found myself gasping at the reality of the sticks against the bell of the ride cymbal. In the song “Nutman’s Invention #1,” the piano felt as if it was physically in my room, or as close to it as any piano has yet been. Piano is one of the more difficult instruments to reproduce accurately. This song showcased the dynamic range of the No. 32 in all of its splendid. The tone of the hammers striking the strings was not only more realistic than I have ever heard reproduced, but provided an experience so life-like that it wasn’t the slightest stretch to believe that a Steinway Grand was present in my listening room. The resonance and decay of the lower frequency strings were warm and naturally aggressive yet never forward. I was positively floored by this cut. At high volumes, perhaps twice the natural volume of the acoustic instrument, the presentation remained firm without the least bit of abrasiveness. Remembering back, it was the synthetic, aggressive, and unforgiving presentation of solid-state preamps that originally steered me towards tubes many years ago, the No. 32 supplied the lush detail and quickness necessary to make an instrument sound live, and still supplied the silkiness of the best tubes today. It made me ponder the phrase “tube sweetness” as perhaps it might be more accurately defined in many cases as “tube softness.”

I went to a cut from one of my favorite entertainers of all time, Tony Bennett, from the wonderfully recorded and performed MTV Unplugged record. (Sony/Columbia) In the song “Speak Real Low,” I directed my attention to the part where Mr. Bennett asks the crowd to join in with the snapping of their fingers. With components short of perfection, this can sound as abrasive as rain hitting a tin roof. The No. 32 displayed an interesting phenomenon; one different than with any other preamp that I had heard, it created a perfect air that surrounded individual snaps making them seem completely distinguishable. I felt as if I could focus on a single snap in any given area and zero in. The No. 32 was capable of creating a sense of space and depth that was more real than artificial. I have heard tremendous stages before but the No. 32 made me believe that the images were truthful and present in my room. I heard the difference between perfectly defined, as with other great preamps that I have heard, and the next evolution – complete actuality. The difference here is what I had alluded to earlier, the ability to not just create perfect three-dimensional images, but to fool ones mind into believing that you are there. That is indeed what this quest for sonic perfection is really all about.

In the song “It Had to be You,” the No. 32 completely stepped aside letting the air in the room take over. I was mesmerized by the brushwork of Clayton Cameron, one of the greatest jazz percussionist of today and arguably the greatest brushman of all time. The Mark Levinson No. 32 sounded so completely absent that I could not only perfectly discern the rotational speed of the brushes on the snare drum, but could differentiate the pressure differences applied to the brushes. This was a liberating experience as I felt as if I was allowed an exclusive backstage pass and beyond the restrictions bestowed upon the everyday show attendee. In this case the restrictions that I am referring to is that of the electronics in my system.

Ben Harpers - Fight For Your Mind (Virgin), proved to be a worthy auditioning tool, it’s a fun piece of music but can sound less than superb with some components. In the song “Burn One Down” the percussion to the left of the stage was so accurate, it could fool the blind man. The tabla drums had a ring and body that were as good as I have ever heard. They were focused, articulate and precise sounding. The guitar had the sound of fresh strings with mounds of detailed sustain. This disc is one that gets more playing time in my car due to its less than completely enjoyable recording qualities for the ultra revealing home systems. However, I found with this disc as I did with about every other that I played through the No. 32 that it wasn’t solely the disc that was performing poorly, but was aided by the equipment that it was being played through. Not to say that all other preamps performed to a sub standard, just that the No. 32 performed a cut above.

Theater and Movies
Because I am a musician and a music lover first, and a video and movie lover second, I am not willing to compromise my music system in creating a top notch A/V system. The fact is that A/V preamps, even at their very best, are still not at the level of today’s reference grade two-channel preamps. Because of this, I maintain a high-level line stage preamp such as the No. 32, which allows me an ultra-pure audio sound system that is isolated from the imperfect defects of my A/V system. Rather than use my A/V preamp for music, even though the Anthem AVM20 is exceptionally good; it would be a huge step down from either the Sonic Frontiers preamp that I have been using, or the Levinson No. 32 that I am auditioning. To achieve this, I connected the CD source straight into the No. 32 line stage preamp, and the outputs from the No. 32 into my amplifiers. That assures a pure audio path. I then took the front main loudspeaker outputs from the A/V preamp and ran them into a second input of the No. 32. When I watch movies, I would then select this specific input and turn the volume control of the No. 32 to the specified and calibrated level for watching movies. Not necessarily for all, but a solution for those that can afford to run a dedicated high-quality two-channel preamp and will not stand for musical compromise.

The Downside
Although the remote for the No. 32 is constructed with the same quality as the rest of the product, it fatigued me to hold it. I’d like to see it made smaller and lighter. A/V manufacturers could learn a lesson from the cell phone industry that has definitely figured out how to produce something that sits comfortably in your hands for hours on end and can be operated in the dark.

System Matching
The Mark Levinson No. 32 is well-engineered sonic masterpiece that when combined with the proper supporting components can produce sound beyond your wildest imagination. Before I recommend you plop down this kind of money, it is important that the rest of your system is up to its level. There is no question that it will improve any system regardless of price, but it only makes sense to me when teamed up with equal components and for that matter, components of equal pride-of-ownership. The Mark Levinson No.336 power amplifier is a great choice at $10,000, the choice of the Audio Revolution’s Publisher. The Pass X Series amplifiers, and Krell FPB Series amplifiers represent additional options at a similar price point. I currently have the No. 32 matched with tubes from Sonic Frontiers, which proved to be a great sounding solution. At the Reference level the Mark Levinson No. 33 mono power amps are well suited for those who have the cash for the best along with a friend at the fork lift rental place. The No. 33’s are as huge physically as they are large in performance and price ($35,000 per pair).

To most, the Mark Levinson No. 32 sounds ridiculously expensive. I may be slightly jaded due to the fact that I have similarly priced products that reside in my A/V system, however I do understand that most if not all have no real understanding of what this thing does for music, or why it costs so much. The fact exists, however perplexing, that there is a real demand for the best-of-the-best however unpractical is seams to those of us that don’t enter our driveways through a motorized iron gate. The No. 32 is transparent and fast without even the slightest edginess or unnatural artifacts. It’s analytical yet not a bit forward. It has an extremely liquid and open top-end that never felt the least bit constrained. The bass control was unequivocally the best that I have heard. The No. 32 allowed images to naturally breath giving life to absolutely every recording it saw. At times I felt such a sense of space between my room and myself that I felt closer to the musical event than to my actual surroundings. If you allow it to, the No. 32 will seduce you and musically transport you to a place that you have never before been. Truth be said, the No. 32 was so superior to every other preamp that I had heard, I couldn’t possibly resist. I bought it. The Mark Levinson No. 32 shares something in common with the likes of David Copperfield, Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis – all both produce magic.
Manufacturer Mark Levinson
Model No. 32 Reference Stereo Preamplifier
Reviewer Bryan Southard

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